After decades of driving manual-transmission cars, I like to think I know when to shift up. But the 2012 Chevy Sonic LTZ turbo had other ideas. As I drove this six-speed-manual-equipped car down a coastal highway, the up arrow icon on the instrument cluster lit up consistently before what I felt was the right time to take a higher gear. By 50 mph the Sonic LTZ turbo wanted to be in top gear.
In this new era when automakers try to eke every bit of fuel economy out of their cars, even the driver is not safe from efficiency engineering. On a flat road, the Sonic's shift suggestions were perfectly reasonable, but on any ascent the small engine just did not have the oomph to idle uphill. Despite what the car might think, downshifts were necessary.
The standard engine for the Sonic is a naturally aspirated 1.8-liter four-cylinder, but Chevy makes a turbo coupled with a 1.4-liter engine as an option. This turbocharged engine leads to a 5 mpg increase in EPA numbers, at 29 mpg city and 40 mpg highway. And those numbers are realistic, as CNET's Sonic managed 32.8 mpg in a mix of city, freeway, and highway driving.
The miracle of the turbocharger means that this smaller engine produces more torque than the 1.8-liter. The turbocharged engine matches the bigger one with 138 horsepower, yet produces 148 pound-feet of torque, 23 more pound-feet than the 1.8-liter.
But finding that power required open defiance of the instrument cluster's upshift light. With the engine wound up so the tachometer pointed northwest (north is beyond redline), the Sonic stepped forward in a lively manner, and I could just about get the front wheels to squeal.
Getting this small engine up to speed from a stop took some anticipation, so much so that I actually stalled it a time or two. And dealing with San Francisco's steep hills, it was occasionally necessary to downshift all the way to first gear, as second gear couldn't cut it. Because the engine isn't that suitable for driving on hills, Chevy equipped the car with a hill-hold feature, a necessary bit of safety tech to keep from either stalling while pointing up at the sky or rolling backward into a looming SUV.
Modular instrument cluster
The instrument cluster pod, where the shift light appears, is a unique bit of design, a big tachometer with a digital display hanging off its right side. Escaping the confines of the dashboard, this informative module sits by itself above the steering column.
With the manual transmission, the tachometer is a very useful gauge, and I did not miss an analog speedometer; the digital readout was perfectly suitable, especially given the Sonic's small amount of power. The monochrome display also showed average fuel economy, but did not include any sort of Eco indicator, like the digital driving coaches appearing in so many other cars.
When I cranked the wheel around while stopped, a whirring sound indicating electric power steering became audible. Chevy overboosted this power steering in the Sonic a bit, making it almost too easy to turn. And it doesn't communicate a lot of road feedback, although I assume that's by design.
The Sonic is no sports car, but rather a competent economy car. The steering was easy when stopped and relaxed enough at speed that I did not have to constantly correct. The suspension is very similar, contributing to a comfortably damped ride, with no harsh jolts from expansion joints or potholes.
At worst, the ride seemed a little springy, the car bouncing jack-in-the-box style over repeated road faults. But it pulled itself together quickly so there was no continued oscillation when the road smoothed. Likewise, driving on curvy roads, the Sonic proved a competent car, able to lean without wallowing, traction and stability control always at the ready to correct for mistakes.